January 5, 2016

Although it’s been a few years since I was in graduate school, I still hear the ideological words of one of my dearly beloved professors ringing in my head on a regular basis. She would often preface her thoughts by warning us that she was about to step onto a soapbox, and I know I wasn’t the only one who felt like some of what she said seemed unrealistic. But that’s the thing about a soapbox, you don’t tend to stand on one if you are going to say something ordinary. While I am still trying to live up to her expectations, I am grateful she instilled in her students the idea of ‘best practice’. We are given a tremendous responsibility to make a real difference in the lives of the students we work with and they deserve the best.

One of the things pounded into our heads over and over again was that standardized tests are not meant to guide our treatment plans. In other words, we should not be using the data we collect on the CELF to write goals. Although, we do get information about a student’s abilities using tests such as the CELF (e.g. a student’s ability to follow directions or formulate a sentence) the subtests aren’t designed to give a complete picture of communication strengths and needs. Rather, they identify whether or not a student may exhibit deficits in language when compared to typical peers for eligibility purposes. A reference article on the ASHA website says this:

“It is important to note the distinctions between the terms evaluation and assessment according to IDEA Part C Guidelines. Evaluation means the “procedures used by qualified personnel to determine a child’s initial and continuing eligibility…” Assessment means “the ongoing procedures used by qualified personnel to identify the child’s unique strengths and needs and the early intervention services appropriate to meet those needs throughout the period of the child’s eligibility…”

I believe SLPs are well trained and do an excellent job of evaluating students and interpreting results for diagnostic purposes. Where we seem to have some difficulty is assessing students’ strengths and needs in order to create treatment plans. And rightly so…it is a daunting task. Speech and language skills are much broader than calculation or reading fluency. Where do we start? We can attempt to create our own assessments or use a colleague’s. I have used SLP created informal measures that do a great job of assessing the speech/language skills listed in the Common Core State Standards. But this alone isn’t necessarily the best way to determine communication abilities as the CCSS do not cover all of the underpinnings of language needed to access the curriculum. In addition, when we look at grade level standards alone, we need to consider that (1) students aren’t expected to meet grade level standards until the end of the school year, and (2) if students are able to meet grade level standards then they most likely don’t require special education services anyways. So then what is the answer? It really needs to be a combination of things. Here are a few ideas to guide your assessment:

  • Refer to speech and language developmental milestones. This is a great way to ensure that you are considering all areas of speech/language. Unfortunately, after age 5 or 6 this is not a practical resource because the developmental norms are less clearly defined in older children. This is due to the nature of later language development and the variances in linguistic exposure for individual children in school. However, you can reference the education standards to determine what the student is expected to be doing academically at each grade level.

  • Gather materials that assess the speech/language skills identified in the norms/standards.

  • Collaborate with the classroom teacher. Interview the teacher or provide him/her with a checklist of skills to consider.

  • Observe the student in the classroom/playground/lunchroom. We know we need to do this but it often gets missed. It’s critically important that we assess a child in a variety of settings.

  • Collect language/narrative samples. Not only is this important for assessing functional discourse but it also allows you to gauge pragmatics, speech, fluency, and voice abilities to determine if in-depth testing is needed in these areas.

Communication profiles are like a gestalt, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the process of assessing students to develop effective treatment plans should reflect that complexity.


I co-created the innovative web app SLP Toolkit. We are school SLPs who are passionate about streamlining workload so time can be spent where it counts - with students: www.slptoolkit.com